... But It's Not Quite Ready Yet
A long and slightly awkward seventeen months have passed since Nintendo first announced the Wii U at that E3 press conference. Despite promising a radical new peripheral, deep social features and a return to the classic games we know and love, potential problems and pitfalls have plagued the console at every turn, from rumours of manufacturing issues and underpowered specs to a tardy last-minute advertising campaign. Hopeful hype has been met by cynicism at every turn, helped in part by Nintendo playing things very close to their chest until the last possible second.
None of that matters now, because the concept has become reality and is currently sitting in lounges across the UK. The Wii U is here. The Gamepad is ready. Miiverse has opened its doors. Nintendo is back.
It's-a judgement time.
Throughout this review, we're going to discuss what makes the Wii U unique, its many strengths, noticeable weaknesses, the user experience and games lineup at launch. And most importantly of all: should you buy one this Christmas?
Box Contents & Build Quality
Your out-of-the-box experience will differ depending on whether you buy the Basic or Premium editions. Here's what to expect:
- 1 x Wii U console
- 1 x Wii U GamePad
- 1 x AC adapter
- 1 x GamePad charging AC adapter
- 1 x HDMI cable
- 1 x Wii sensor bar (Europe and US only)
Premium model extras:
- 1 x Wii U GamePad charger
- 1 x Wii U GamePad stand
- 1 x Wii U console stand feet
- 1 x Free copy of Nintendo Land in standard bundle (note that other bundles are available)
Once you've emancipated your new console from its slim cardboard inserts and wrapping, first impressions are bound to be incredibly positive. Despite being much deeper than the original Wii, the Wii U takes up roughly the same amount of AV cabinet real estatate due to a similarly-sized frontage. Rounded, shiny and solid, you'll likely be immediately surprised by its hefty weight of 1.5 kilograms. If you get the Premium Edition, you can also stand it upright using triangular plastic feet that slot into the side of the console. All told, though it looks similar to its predecessor, the Wii U stands as one of the most attractive and svelte consoles on the market at present, and a reassuringly professional outing. If the Wii looked like a toy, the Wii U looks like a serious piece of gaming technology, and feels like one too.
The Gamepad peripheral also comes across as a suitably impressive bit of kit. Satisfyingly solid yet pleasingly light, comfortable to hold thanks to two rounded grab handles on the rear, it looks as expensive as it doubtlessly was to manufacture. My only real criticisms would be that there's a little play in the face buttons and stylus holder, resulting in a slightly disconcerting jangly rattle when shaken.
Sadly, it's worth noting that both the Gamepad, base console and Pro Controller favour a shiny finish. They'll get covered in fingerprints within minutes.
Specifications: A Tale Of Two Editions
As far as we know, an AMD Radeon GPU with a clock speed of approximately 550 MHz sits at the heart of the Wii U, accompanied by a IBM PowerPC-based multi-core processor that's rumoured to have a clock speed of 1.24 GHz. This is approximately 50% less than the PS3 and Xbox 360, but since it's a much more modern processor, it's not a valid comparison. 2GB of RAM are equally split between games and the operating system - 1GB apiece, almost double compared to exsting consoles - while 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i resolutions are supported using the supplied HDMI cable or legacy connectors (sold separately).
In plain English, Nintendo reckons that the Wii U should be noticeably more powerful than the Xbox 360 and PS3, but it's currently impossible to judge one way or the other. Multiplatform ports look broadly identical to their existing versions, while the biggest exclusives like New Super Mario Bros. U and ZombiU hide their graphical prowess behind heavily stylised aesthetics. We remain unconvinced that the Wii U represents an enormous step up in graphical grunt (and it certainly won't hold its own against the next generation of Sony and Microsoft machines), but like most Nintendo consoles, a bevy of imaginative and colourful games will likely make up for this.
In terms of storage, the Basic edition comes with 8GB of onboard flash memory, of which a paltry 3.2GB is useable after downloading a firmware update and creating an account. The Premium Edition packs a useable 25GB out of 32, which is still not particularly impressive considering that a single Wii U optical discs can hold a maximum of 25GB. At least you'll be able to plug in an external hard drive to one of the four USB ports, but only if they have their own power supply, since the Wii U doesn't provide enough juice to power one itself.
Basic Or Premium?
At this point, we need to categorically state whether the Basic or Premium Edition it better value... or more accurately, slam the cheaper Basic Edition as practically useless. It's a false saving; providing a bare minimum of onboard memory (3.2 GB once the firmware update has taken effect), no Gamepad charging cradle, no ability to stand your console upright and no Nintendo Land for £50 less than the Premium version. If you plan on getting a Wii U, it's probably worth stumping up the extra fifty notes since Nintendo Land will cost you that much by itself at retail price.
Hardware setup is broadly identical to any current console, in that you'll need to connect the Wii U to its power supply and plug in the HDMI cable to your television. Simple. The Gamepad will require its own power socket for its AC adaptor and/or charging cradle depending on which edition you opted for.
Once booted up for the first time, the Wii U's lengthy initial setup procedure fulfils two main purposes: sorting out the standard busywork, and introducing new players to the Gamepad. Simple and well-explained touchscreen prompts act as a neat way to get used to the idea of controlling a console from the peripheral, while also tinkering with the time, display and parental control settings. As you'd expect, you'll have to create a Mii avatar for your primary user account, which is exactly the same as the Wii and 3DS procedure. To be honest, the simplistic Mii dolls look lacklustre and crude compared to the Xbox 360's avatars, but they still possess some simple charm and can be transferred over from the 3DS in less than two minutes.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the experience is setting up the Gamepad to become a universal television remote. Selecting your TV manufacturer and finding the right frequency is incredibly simple (you won't even have to find the manual), and instantly turns the tablet into one of the most useful devices in your living room. Power, channel, volume and input selection is all to hand, and is a canny way of ensuring that we'll keep using the peripheral in our daily lives. Clever, Nintendo, but much appreciated.
You'll then have the 'option' to update the firmware. Which is where things take a turn for the irritating...
That Firmware Update
In no uncertain terms, the Wii U is not ready for action straight out of the box. You're only able to play disc-based Wii U games offline or create a Mii. There's no backwards compatibility, no WiiVerse, no internet browser, no online marketplace and no online multiplayer; in fact the original Wii makes its successor look like a Casio calculator.
To access these core features, you'll have to connect to the internet (via in-built wireless adapter or buying a cable connector) and download the 1GB update. As we'll discuss later in the article, the download takes far longer than it should - approximately an hour and a half for most people with decent internet speeds - and ends up filling 5GB of flash memory. We wouldn't have balked at a minor day one patch, but it's incredibly galling that so many core features are withheld unless you have access to a Wi-Fi connection and time on your hands.
Though it's theoretically possible to download the update in the background by cancelling it before installation using the onscreen prompt, I take no responsibility for things going wrong if you do so. DO NOT SWITCH OFF THE WII U WHILE THE DOWNLOAD OR INSTALLATION/FIRMWARE FLASHING PROCEDURE IS IN PROGRESS. Seriously. Don't do it.
The Gamepad: Potential Game Changer
Now onto the good news. The Wii U's major unique feature is its Gamepad peripheral, and I'm delighted to report that it's utterly fantastic. Whether you use it as a universal remote to control your television, an internet browser, a primary gameplay screen while others watch the telly, a TV/movie tablet or a second screen in more imaginative titles, it exhibits absolutely no latency or lag whatsoever and crisp screen quality.
Indeed, any doubts about the 6.2 inch screen melt away once you try it. Despite boasting no onboard processing capabilities and relying solely on streaming video footage from the base unit, the only loss of quality is some very slight pixelation (only noticeable if you really get your eye in) and some washed out primary colours compared to the HD widescreen output. The touchscreen is relatively responsive compared to other resistive devices and works well when implemented into gameplay, though it takes a while to get used to having to look at a peripheral rather than relying on muscle memory. For typing, drawing and fine manipulation, the included stylus will doubtlessly come in handy.
The Gamepad also features a forward-facing camera, motion sensors (gyroscope, accelerometer and geo-magnetic), a Microphone and a built-in WiiMote sensor strip allowing it to be used as a sensor bar while playing Wii games. Its speakers prove to be surprisingly powerful too, and are often used to play an accompanying melody to the main soundtrack or additional sound effects in-game. Just in case you didn't know, it also happens to be a regular controller, packing two thumbsticks, two digital triggers and bumpers, and the usual complement of face buttons.
Nintendo suggests that the Gamepad has a maximum operating range of 26 feet (roughly eight metres), though this differs wildly depending on the application and any obstructions. I found that I could operate the system menu from roughly double that distance, but could only stream Netflix footage from about eight metres (a single interior wall often proved too much for it). It's unlikely that you'll be able to consistently use it in a different room from the base console, but since multiplayer tends to be centred around fun with friends, it's unlikely that you'll want to beyond checking the internet in the bathroom. Something that, frankly, smartphones and tablets are built for.
Despite its surprising brilliance, the Gamepad does have a couple of issues. Notably, its embarrassing battery life will deplete a full charge in a matter of 2-3.5 hours, making frequent cradle docking a must or playing it while tethered to a power point. The resistive touchscreen's lack of multi-touch functionality is also likely to severely limit potential gameplay applications (and makes using the web browser much less intuitive than phones or tablets), to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if a multi-touch version makes an appearance down the line.
The potential (there's that word again) for new and truly innovative console titles is nearly limitless thanks to that second screen. Whether used as an interactive map, scanner, interface or an entirely new perspective on the action, we look forward to seeing what developers decide to do with it. At present, Nintendo are keen to explore the idea of Asymmetrical multiplayer - in which the Gamepad player has access to different information or even a different gameplay role than their fellows - which we'll discuss in greater depth during individual game reviews.
GUI & Menus: Slick, Stylish, Simple, Slow
The Wii U's menu is simplicity itself: a series of square icons that can be displayed either on the TV or Gamepad (and switched instantly between the two). Browsing is slick and immediately accessible on the Gamepad's touchscreen, whether its on the main menu or in the clean, crisp eShop interface. Pressing the home button brings up an immediately accessible menu with Miiverse, internet browser and other options immediately to hand. Put simply, it's a lean and convenient user interface that's refreshingly free of advertising and bumf, and a revelation compared to Metro or the current Singstar-infested XMB.
However, the slick looks disguise an aggravating - even unforgivable - issue. Loading an application can take between 10-30 seconds from when you tap the icon, which is an outrageous amount of time to have to sit and wait. Even something as simple as booting up the system settings page takes seventeen seconds by my count, both before and after the update. Considering that this is a brand new operating system for a brand new console, specifically designed for the platform and ostensibly supported by an entire Gigabyte of RAM, these wait times are nothing short of disgusting. Patch it again or be damned.
Speaking of updates, the waiting keeps adding up. Game title updates can take between 2-5 minutes to download, despite the Wii U's optimistic estimations, and eShop downloads take much longer than similarly-sized games on PS3 or Xbox 360. It's clear that Nintendo's server infrastructure just isn't up to scratch yet. Nintendo needs to bring this up to speed (in any sense of the phrase), and do so soon.
The Wii U is fully compatible with Wii peripherals and sensor bar straight out of the box, but Nintendo's approach to Wii games is nowhere near as elegant. Once you've installed the firmware update, you'll have to load up an emulated version of the Wii's operating system as a standalone application in order to play last-generation games. Since the OS has been emulated in its entirety, you can only browse the menus with a WiiMote and there's no Gamepad support whatsoever. It's a crying shame that backwards compatibility hasn't been integrated into the core experience, resulting in yet more time spent waiting rather than playing.
On the plus side, the Wii U slightly upscales the visuals for some titles, to the extent where some of the best-looking games look noticeably improved. The Last Story, as an example, has never looked better.
To be blunt, we're just glad that it features backwards compatibility in the first place. Though slightly clunkier than necessary, we won't look a gift horse in the mouth.
Nintendo TVii, a free service that corrals multiple video content providers into a single convenient social hub, is not supported in the UK. This is fairly disappointing considering that the tempting icon taunts us on the Home menu, but a recent post on the Nintendo UK site suggests that the functionality will be added some time next year.
However, YouTube and Netflix apps are both available, and both work exceptionally well. Netflix in particular have delivered a sensational user experience that makes the most of the Gamepad screen, allowing you to effortlessly browse through menus and instantly stream footage to the touchscreen at the touch of a button with no waiting around.
Since the Gamepad can be used as a TV remote, we daresay that the Wii U will eventually become a fully-fledged streaming entertainment centre. It will have to be, because at the time of writing, it won't play DVDs.
Miiverse & Friends
Rejoice and be merry, for Friend Codes are no more. Instead, players marry their Mii and user account to a unique Nintendo Network ID that acts like a Gamertag or handle. You can search for friends and add them to your list, send them messages and generally enjoy the sort of online experience we're used to from every other console out there. It took Nintendo long enough.
Once you've set up your Nintendo Network ID, Miiverse will suddenly open up to you, acting as a cross between Facebook and traditional forums that's directly integrated into the console experience. You're free to delve into game-specific forums, whereupon you can post and reply to threads and show off in-game screenshots you've taken. Posts can be standard text or a freely-drawn picture using a very simple paint application, which seems to be zealously moderated by Nintendo's online team. I've yet to see even a single willy, while many of the pictures have been utterly stunning in quality and some of the gameplay hints I've found have been invaluable. When idly browsing the menus, either the Gamepad or TV screen (depending on which you're not actively using) play host to a crowd of Miis from your friends list and around the world, throwing up the latest status updates, threads and pictures for you to browse. Or reply to. Or disagree with. Instead of forcing players onto the PC to join in the community, the Wii U puts it front and centre, allowing us to make new friends without leaving our sofa.
Certain games, such as New Super Mario Bros. U, allow you to transcribe some Miiverse greetings in-game after completing certain challenges, while messages from other players will be downloaded onto the map screen for your perusal. I learned a few handy hints for getting the trickier Star Coins that way.
It's difficult to know whether Miiverse will be an underused novelty or a revolution in how we interact with other players, but I personally believe the latter. So long as Nintendo continue to push and support the platform and use it to directly engage with us, it can theoretically turn the whole global player base into a single connected circle of friends. We hope that they'll put in the effort and time required to realise its potential because it's arguably the most forward-thinking feature that the console has to offer.
The Launch Lineup
We'll have full reviews of several launch titles for your eager delectation soon, but the long and short of it is that you've got two major exclusives to choose from: New Super Mario Bros. U and ZombiU. Of the two, NSMBU is definitely a more accessible and sure-fire winner, since the latter caters to a surprisingly niche hardcore audience who craves immersion and true survival horror over traditional entertainment. Nintendo Land is great fun in local multiplayer (perfect for Christmas family celebrations), but absolutely doesn't justify a £50 purchase on its own - get it as part of a bundle along with the premium console and another game or not at all.
It's a fairly strong lineup along with a handful of multiplatform ports, though I personally don't feel that the Wii U has a killer app yet. We strongly suspect that Pikmin 3, the delayed Rayman Legends and Platinum Games-developed The Wonderful 101 will fill this role when they release next year - so perhaps it might be worth waiting. Once again, the Wii U's potential outweighs its value at launch.
- Gamepad peripheral is fantastic
- Solid build quality, attractive design
- Miiverse could be a surprise revolution if handled properly going forward
- Compatible with Wii peripherals and games
- Slick, attractive and convenient user interface
- Potential to support truly revolutionary games and entertainment applications
- Hair-tearingly, controller-snappingly sluggish OS
- Lengthy downloads suggest that Nintendo's servers aren't running at full strength yet
- Very limited onboard flash memory
- Core features (such as backwards compatibility) have to be installed via firmware update
- Lacks a true killer app at launch, most exciting titles slated for 2013
- Disappointing Gamepad battery life
- £50 RRP for most games is difficult to justify
The Verdict: The Wii U is fantastic fun and brims with potential. Crucially, the Gamepad is responsive, latency-free and versatile enough to support an entirely new generation of games. Perhaps even new genres. Early adopters will certainly enjoy the launch experience and Miiverse community, with some tantalising titles to look forward to over the coming months and one of the most exciting peripherals on the market.
But though the future is bright, the Wii U isn't quite ready yet. A horrendously slow (if slickly-designed) operating system bogs users down in ridiculous wait times, while download speeds leave much to be desired. The fact that so many core features aren't present in the box is clear evidence of a desperately rushed launch, compounded by the lack of an exclusive killer app that uses the Wii U's unique features to full advantage.
Should you buy a Wii U this Christmas? There's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't invest in the Premium Edition, but critically, there aren't many compelling reasons to take the plunge either. If you're on the fence, you might be better off waiting until next Spring when the first wave of major titles release for the system.